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Plans Beyond Our Own Little Boxes

Commentary
The lessons for the last Sunday of Easter witness to how we might live by the awesome vision of God and his plans for a future so different from present realities that keep us in our own little “boxes.” 

Acts 16:16-34
The First Lesson is drawn from the second part of a two-part history of the Church, traditionally attributed to Luke, a physician and Gentile associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon). Like the Gospel, the author’s intention was to stress the universal mission of the Church (Acts 1:8). This text is the story of Paul’s casting out spirits from the slave girl in Philippi, the subsequent arrest of Paul and Silas, and the conversion of their jailer.

Luke first reports (using the first person plural) the encounter of Paul with a female slave who had a spirit of divination, which brought her owners much money by fortune-telling (v.16). She is reported to have followed Paul, crying out that he and his disciples were slaves of the most high God proclaiming the way of salvation (v.17). After days of this Paul becomes annoyed and casts out the spirit from her in Christ’s name (v.18). 

The woman’s owners are concerned about the loss of money they had been gaining from her fortune-telling and so seize Paul and Silas, bringing them before authorities claiming they had been disturbing the peace and are Jews advocating customs contrary to Roman law (vv.19-21). The crowd joins the woman’s owner in this attack (v.22a). Magistrates have Paul and Silas flogged, throwing them in jail and placing them in stocks (vv.22b-24).

At midnight, while Paul and Silas were worshipping God and the prisoners were listening to them, suddenly there was an earthquake that loosened chains and opened the doors of the prison (vv.25-26). When the jailer awoke to see the prison doors open, he prepared to kill himself assuming the prisoners had escaped (v.27). It is reported that Paul tried to stop him, claiming no one had escaped (v.28). The narrative continues with the jailer falling down before Paul and Silas, bringing them outside and asking them what he must do to be saved (vv.29-30). Informed that he need only believe in the Lord Jesus, the jailer brings them into his house, gives them food, and he and his household rejoice because he had become a believer (vv.31-34).

Since this chapter transpires right after the report in chapter 15 of the Church’s decision to admit Gentiles to membership, it is significant that no report is given regarding the ethnicity of either the woman healed or the jailer. But since the events took place in a Greek town, Philippi, the odds seem likely that they could have been Gentile. This is especially the case since the charges against Paul and Silas pertained to Roman laws forbidding efforts of these Jews to convert Gentiles. (Recall that Christianity was still perceived as a sect of Judaism in biblical times.)     

For all the talk about multiculturalism in many academic circles, Americans are not doing a good job with diversity. A 2014 poll conducted by the Public Religion Research institute found that 75% of whites and 65% of African Americans have no member of the opposite race in their own social networks. But a 2012 book titled Coming Apart by Charles Murray on white Americans found vast divisions economically and educationally among them. Seems that whites live in economic bubbles so that they do not even share common work-ethics, moral values, politics, or religious beliefs, not even common recreational pursuits with members of social classes other than their own. Of course they don’t live close enough to know each other. In fact, each side sees the other as a little weird, almost like the female slave capable of fortune telling must have seemed weird to Paul and his followers. She as well as the jailer whom Paul counseled and converted were likely Gentiles — the “other.” Our Lesson is about Christianity’s outreach to those who different from us, to cut through all the barriers and even to extend love and forgiveness. All the assigned Lessons testify to this vision of God which inspires us to get out of our comfortable, stifling “boxes.”

Revelation 22:14,16-17,20-21
The Second Lesson is drawn from the Apochryphal Book of the late first century expressing hope for salvation after a world-ending new creation. Although parts of the Book may predate the fall of Jerusalem and Rome’s destruction of it, it is likely that it achieved its present form during the reign of the Emperor Domitian in Rome between 81 and 96 AD. Christians were being persecuted for refusing to address him as lord and god. The book’s Semitic Greek style suggests that its author was Jewish. Though it purports to be written by John (1:1,4,9; 22:8), his identity is not clear, though the tradition has identified him with the disciple by that name. The book is the report of seven dreams, relying heavily on eschatological images of the Book of Daniel (see 1:7,12-16; cf. Daniel 7:3; 10:5-9).

This lesson, drawn from the epilogue of the book reports words attributed to the risen Jesus. The book’s author (identifying himself as John) first reports the revelation of an angel (vv.8-11). Then follow statements by the risen Christ, who claims divine titles (the First and the Last) (v.13) and proclaims that he will be coming soon with a reward to repay everyone according to his or her work (vv.12,20). It is also taught that those who wash their robes will have a right to the tree of life and may enter the city (New Jerusalem) (v.14).

Explicit identification of the speaker with Jesus follows as he claims to have his angel with his testimony to the churches. He says that he is the root and descendent of David (v.16). The Spirit and the Bride (the Church) say, “Come.” Anyone thirsty should come, it is said (v.17). A concluding blessing that the grace of the Lord be with all the saints is offered (v.21).

Just as the Christians addressed by Revelation were under pressure to worship a false god, so today’s Christians are pressured to commit idolatry — to submit to the lures the addictive brainwashing which the internet exerts on us, to buy the products it markets (Nicholas Carr, The Shallows, pp.35,116), and to worship at the throne of wealth. (A Pew Research Center poll taken a decade ago found 56% of us found having wealth either very or at least somewhat important.) We often bow to this false god. This lesson shows us another God, a vision of one who gives us a fresh start, who invites us to become clean of our greed, free of the propaganda and addictions of this age. Neurobiologists indicate that this future-oriented vision of God engages the brain in forging new neural connections, which are rewarded by having our brains bathed in the brain chemical dopamine which gives feelings of pleasure and happiness (Sherwin Nuland, The Art of Aging). The vision of the future Jesus brings sets us free from bondage to the internet and the mad pursuit of wealth, and gets us feeling good.

John 17:20-26
The Gospel provides a report of the conclusion of Jesus’ farewell discourse, a meditation offered after the Last Supper and just prior to his arrest in Jerusalem. This lesson is the final portion of his High-Priestly Prayer, which is unique to this, the fourth and newest of the Gospels. Probably not written until the 80s or 90s AD, this Gospel is written in a very different style than that of the previous three (Synoptic) Gospels, though it is likely based on them. Identification of the author with John the Son of Zebedeee, the disciple whom Jesus loved is ancient, dating back to Irenaeus in the second century (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, p.414). Regardless of its origins, though, the book’s main agenda was probably to encourage Jewish Christians in conflict with the synagogue that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31).

Jesus’ prayer in this lesson is offered not just on behalf of his contemporaries but for those who will believe through the word of his disciples (v.20). He prays that they would all be one, as he and the Father are in each other (that his followers would also be in the Father and the Son so that the world might believe that the Father has sent him) (v.21). The glory given the Son by the Father is said to have been given so that they may be one as he and Father are one (v.22). Jesus says that he is in the faithful and the Father in him, so that they may become completely one in order that the world might know that the Father has sent him and loves the faithful as he loves the Son (v.23).

Jesus then prays that those given him may be with him, see his glory, because he has been loved by the Father before the beginning of the world (v.24). He prays to the Father, noting that the world does not know him as Jesus does (v.25). He has made the Father known and will do so in order that the love that the Father has for the Son may be in those given to the Son by the Father (v.26)

A casual observer of American society recognizes immediately how divided we are politically. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken at the end of 2018 found that 80% of us think America is divided.  A recent book by political scientist Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, esp.pp,45-46,49,61-62, points out that the very dynamic of modern liberal democracy encourages an individualism liberated from any limiting conditions on what we desire. As much as we venerate our democratic rights, the system does pull us apart from each other. Even family commitments must subordinate themselves to fulfilling our desires. Jesus’ call for and promise of unity is such a helpful and salubrious antidote to these trends. We need the unity and community that can counteract these individualistic, divisive trends.  The unity we have is not presented here as a task, but as a reality rooted in the union of the Trinity. As Father, Son, and Spirit are one (Augustine taught that the Spirit is the love that binds Father and Son into one [Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol.3, p.100]), so human beings made in the image of God are social, bound to each other. With a sense of community, our political differences would not be so divisive and the quest for individual rights would not be at the expense of the rights of my neighbor.

The celebration of Easter truly continues in the lessons for this Sunday. All of them portray the awesome vision of a God who in the Resurrection and in the future that lies ahead has offered us a way out of our isolation and unhappiness.
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